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A Personal Reminiscence

Historian of the Ambiguous Core

By Fred Paxton | HUMANITIES, March/April 1999 | Volume 20, Number 2

In the autumn of 1977, I attended a lecture series at the University of Washington where each week a different member of the faculty addressed the theme of “Medieval Traditions.” The presentations were interesting, but little more, and I began to consider devoting my Wednesday evenings to other pursuits. Then it was Caroline Walker Bynum’s turn. The title of her lecture, “The Reformation of the Twelfth Century,” suggested something different -- I had heard of a twelfth-century Renaissance, but never a Reformation -- so I took my seat with some real anticipation.

The slight young scholar at the podium beamed intellectual energy. She made the complexities of her topic accessible to the audience. She used the actual voices of medieval reformers to reveal their preoccupations and their world. Best of all, she noted where questions remained and work needed to be done. I remember, in particular, her noting briefly the lack of a full account of how the living and the dead came to share the same space in medieval Europe. Throughout Mediterranean antiquity, the tombs of the dead lay outside city walls, but slowly during the Middle Ages they came to rest right in the heart of the living community. No one was quite sure why. I left the auditorium wanting to be her student.

I did not see her again, however, until a year later. In the meantime, she had adopted a daughter from Ecuador, and my wife and I had had our first child. My wife and I hoped that a master’s degree in history might qualify me to teach English as a Second Language at a community college, a step up from the private school where we worked then. When I presented this plan to Bynum, she asked if I knew Latin and French or German. Fortunately, a Catholic education had supplied me with some Latin, and we had lived and taught in Germany for a couple of years before coming to Seattle. That satisfied her. She seemed pleased that I did not expect to make a career out of history, since the job market was terrible, and encouraged me to apply for admission to the graduate school.

The first courses I took with her seeded both the research program and teaching methods I have followed ever since. None of Bynum’s students had much real background in medieval history, so she taught us how most efficiently to acquire it. In her field seminar, we wrote responses to historiographical classics and familiarized ourselves with the specialized dictionaries, encyclopedias, and bibliographies she regarded as basic tools of the trade. We even analyzed complete runs of journals, from their inaugural editorials to their demise or current state. Her research seminar, on genres of twelfth-century spiritual literature, led us directly into primary texts, which we read in their entirety. I had to report to the seminar on a monastic customary, an assignment I regretted at first, for the customs books of medieval monasteries seemed to describe the minutiae of daily activity without offering any insight into the actual experience or quality of monastic life. As I neared the end, however, where the text turned to the final illness, death, and burial of a monk, the pages came alive. Here was something too important to be reduced to mere instructions. It was just the kind of experience Bynum wanted for her students, and the questions it generated still reverberate in my thinking. I was hooked.

Bynum’s own scholarship focuses on close readings of medieval texts, and many of her most characteristic insights are the result of attention to the exact textual context in which particular words, images, and arguments appear. Many people, for example, had noted the fact that certain twelfth-century spiritual writers spoke of Jesus “as mother.” It was Bynum, however, who showed that they were mostly Cistercian abbots struggling to understand the proper relationship they should have with the monks in their charge. The abbots were not feminizing Christ or imagining God as a woman, but revising their notions of authority in terms of nurturing, rather than disciplining or demanding. They simply could not do so without writing as if they, and God, were mothers. In Bynum’s analysis, their odd use of language betrays unarticulated concerns, and both their use of language and their hidden concerns emerge from the realities of their lives and spiritual aspirations.

Similarly, in an article that won the 1985 Berkshire Prize for women’s history, Bynum showed how medieval female mystics made creative use of contemporary preconceptions about women in their quest for spiritual illumination. The certainty that women’s essential character was fleshly, whereas man’s was spiritual or rational, placed them in closer relation than men to the central Christian mystery of the Incarnation, by which God had entered into flesh. Thus, their bodily suffering, which mirrored the suffering of Christ, and their devotion to his body in the Eucharist, could become sources of spiritual authority. Such ironies underlay the great blossoming of female spirituality in the later Middle Ages, which, thanks to Bynum, now makes much more sense, right down to the strangest of its literary and behavioral manifestations.

One day Bynum asked me if I had considered pursuing a doctoral degree. By then I wanted nothing more than to continue studying with her. To my surprise and consternation, however, she advised against it. I had done all I could do at Washington, she said. I should go somewhere with a larger faculty and bigger libraries. Besides, teaching positions were so rare that only graduates of the very best programs in the country had a chance at getting one. Reluctantly, I took her advice and left the next year for the University of California, Berkeley.

In early 1980, the University of California Press asked me to help edit the Bynum manuscript that became Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. Bynum’s letters over the next year or so capture some of the complexity of her relations to the profession at that time. In response to the news that some professors at Berkeley seemed uncomfortable with my enthusiasm in seminars, she wrote: "It hits you and me in different ways. But there is a kind of male personality type that is expected of scholars. . . . It (the proper stance) is compounded of deference and caution, with a touch of fear of being misunderstood; it involves fear of young minds (read -- usually -- students), of new topics and methods etc. Of course your enthusiasm does not include ‘loss of logical clarity’ but it is enthusiasm -- not quite masculine and upper class! As I say, it hits me in different ways; I’m licked before I start (can’t be masculine) and so am in a curious way freed, although also automatically excluded."

The problem was not just a matter of personal style. Ultimately most historical scholarship focused on the distribution of power, a subject that interested Bynum far less than "the ambiguities at the core" of individual behavior and belief. "I have a feeling that what I care about discovering in the past -- the subtle interweaving of factors, the way in which groups are both hedged in by and creative with their reality, the paradoxes and tensions that define the context of human courage, etc. -- are in a profound way related to how I want to be as a historian."

Such considerations underlay her repeated misgivings over the title that the press wanted for the book. More than one senior scholar had remarked that her kind of history was underdeveloped and marginal. She did not wish to provide reviewers an opportunity to ignore the book by taking issue with the title, which referred to only one of its related essays. She yielded at last after the press agreed to include a subtitle and because the title might catch the attention of more than just professional medievalists and historians.

And it did. The reviewer in the usually staid journal of the Medieval Academy of America marveled that he had come upon a copy in San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore “on a prominent shelf downstairs among books on feminism and on spirituality.” Calling the title “a wily choice,” he applauded Bynum both for the quality of her scholarship and for her “evangelistic efforts on behalf of medieval history.” He even likened her to the seventh-century English monk Aldhelm, who gathered sermon audiences by “singing Anglo-Saxon poems out-of-doors.”

In 1981 the University of Washington promoted Bynum to full professor. A Thanksgiving Day letter from her the following year reported that, although experiencing some teaching burnout, and concerned about her daughter and her father’s health, she felt “free at last from the pressure to be a proper medievalist.” Moreover, her immersion in sources by and about medieval women mystics, with whom she was “totally, obsessively, wonderfully preoccupied,” was already producing the buds that would blossom into her extraordinary next book, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. “I want to find some way of talking,” she wrote, “in a really fine-textured way, about how the women talk themselves -- their images and language as well as their ideas. . . .And the more I work the more it seems to me that the real issues aren’t those historians have talked about. The eucharist, for example, and fasting -- everybody knows those are late medieval concerns. . .but nobody notices that they’re about food. . .and food has profound meaning for women cross- culturally.” In an amusing aside, she admitted how difficult it was “not to sneak off for a doughnut occasionally when you’re slogging through detailed descriptions of saints who don’t eat.”

In 1986 the MacArthur Foundation chose Bynum for one of its prestigious fellowships. The next year Holy Feast and Holy Fast appeared, and in 1988 she left Washington for Columbia University. Her career had taken off. I have watched, with great satisfaction, her interests move from the margins into the center of scholarly concern. Not that she has escaped criticism. Some have faulted her for ignoring the possibility that the abbots who spoke of Jesus as mother were ambivalent about their own sexuality. Others have charged her with indifference to the support that medieval saints and mystics gave to an oppressive, patriarchal, and anti-Semitic ecclesiastical order. But her goal has been to elucidate the complexities behind their quest for the divine, not to weigh them, or their religion, in the scale of present-day sensibilities. In an essay for Disability Studies Quarterly published in 1992, Bynum may have alluded to such criticisms by noting that raising a child whose infancy was marked by neglect and malnutrition had made her “chary both of ignoring ‘oppression’ and ‘marginality’ and of using these terms lightly.” For her, the “common human experience of death” is more fundamental than “the oppressions that divide us.” The medieval people she writes about would certainly agree.

A year before the publication of her most recent book, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christendom, 200-1336, I heard Bynum lecture at Columbia on death and resurrection in early Christian thought. There lay the roots, she argued, of the modern Western view that particular bodies are essential to personal identity. We cannot imagine ourselves as bodiless minds or souls, or in someone else’s body, and still as us, because centuries of debate over the Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection have left their mark on our sense of self. To illustrate, she spoke about her father, stricken with Alzheimer’s disease in the early 1970s. Witnessing his heartbreaking mental and physical deterioration for more than twenty years had affected her deeply. He had long ago stopped recognizing her. He no longer spoke and could make only incomprehensible sounds. But the sounds still carried the southern cadences of his voice. The hands and feet were his hands and feet. In some profound way, he was his body. In Disability Studies Quarterly, Bynum had written, “I do not think I would be writing the book that I am at this moment writing without having spent many hours of my adult life beside my father’s geriatric chair holding his hand.” He was “living death,” but he was still that person, her father. The Resurrection of the Body is dedicated to him, Andrew Jackson Walker, and to Antonia Walker, the granddaughter he never knew.

Like the medieval women mystics whose spirituality she has so brilliantly illuminated, Caroline Walker Bynum has re-envisioned a part of the world. From her early studies on differing ideals of the religious life, to the history of gender and spirituality, to changing notions of the body and the sense of self, she has led us to the "ambiguous core" of some of the most mysterious of our common human experiences -- embodiment, death, and ecstasy. We could ask for no better guide.

About the Author

Fred Paxton is a professor of history at Connecticut College in New London. This year he is a member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.